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The following is the first in a series of articles authored by The Biz of Baseball's latest contributor, Gary Armida. Armida, working with former A's and Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, and the staff of 3P Sports will be bringing you articles each and every month. In this first article, we look at the life of Rick Peterson, and his continued efforts to improve pitchers on a number of levels. - Maury Brown
If one ponders that $330 million dollars was spent on injured pitchers during the 2008 Major League Baseball season, you might believe that something is inherently wrong with how pitchers are developed. Even with pitching related injuries at an all-time high, few organizations have an effective plan in place. Many teams are content with innings limits and/or restrictive pitch counts. Arguably, those approaches are not working. The Texas Rangers are being considered bold as team president Nolan Ryan implements a training program where pitchers are encouraged to pitch deeper into games and throw more pitches. This plan cannot accurately be evaluated for several more seasons. It is, however, a plan without much validation in terms of good, sound research. While baseball is quite progressive in strategic areas and training methods, it still lacks a definitive plan as to how to prevent pitching injuries. This problem is not limited to the professional ranks. The amateur pitching market is experiencing an injury boom unlike any other. In fact, according to the American Sports Medical Institute (ASMI), over the last 10 years, Tommy John surgeries have increased by 700 percent in the amateur pitching market. Perhaps it would be wise to address the amateur pitching market which should, in turn, decrease the percentage of major league pitching injuries. That’s a wise decision according to Rick Peterson, the former major league pitching coach for the Oakland A’s and the New York Mets.
“Forty-five percent of young pitchers under the age of 12 experience chronic elbow pain. That number rises to 60 percent when talking about high school age pitchers.”
Peterson, armed with over 30 years of professional experience as well as the research of ASMI, is now in the process of revolutionizing the amateur pitching market with, 3P Sports, a company which aims to teach amateur pitchers how to perform at their optimum level while preventing injury. In fact, Peterson’s entire professional life has led him to this point.
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Growing Up Baseball
Peterson had the good fortune to grow up in a baseball family. In fact, one could say that he grew up in baseball. His father, Harding Peterson, was a catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1959. A broken arm on a play at the plate robbed the elder Peterson of a long career, but he remained in the game as a coach and, later on, as a front office executive. Harding Peterson does have the distinction of being the starting catcher in the final games at the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field.
Having his father involved in professional baseball afforded Rick the opportunity to interact with some of the greatest players and people of their generation.
“With Dad involved in the game, I was calling Danny Murtagh, Steve Blass, Vernon Law, and Roberto Clemente by ‘Uncle’,” Peterson said. “Being around those men taught me so much. For one, it was easy to see how the game should be played. Secondly, it helped take away that awe of talking to a professional player.” The latter lesson would serve him later on when first breaking into coaching. Peterson’s father would begin a coaching career managing in the minor leagues.
It was during this time that shaped how Peterson treats people. Many of his father’s managing positions were in the south during the ‘60s; the height of the Civil Rights movement. A young Rick Peterson would have a front row seat for much of the era.
“I can remember travelling on the bus with the team and we’d look for a place to eat,” Peterson said. “Dad would get off the bus and ask the restaurant manager if he would serve the entire team, not just the white members. If the answer was no, Dad would get back on the bus and we’d search for a place that would.”
In fact, it was during this time where Peterson would learn how to treat people properly. At seven and eight years old, he would sell popcorn and peanuts in the stands. “The stands were pretty segregated. African Americans sat on the first base side. I was going around the stadium selling popcorn. As I went down the first base line, someone stopped me and told me to not go in that section. I didn’t know why. I simply said, ‘They’re people. Don’t they like popcorn too?’ I learned from that whole experience that people are people. That is the beauty of baseball. Everyone on the team was the same.”
It is quite clear that this experience has helped shape the type of coach he has become. It was a regular scene to see Peterson go to the mound and put his hand his pitcher’s shoulder and ask how he was. He is not the coach that publicly berates a player. It is because of his demeanor (and knowledge) that Peterson is considered one of the most respected coaches in all of baseball.
Playing Career Cut Short
Having grown up around baseball, it seemed clear that Peterson was going to be a high-caliber player. He pitched through high school and was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 30th round. But, Peterson had multiple offers to attend college, including Harvard, Duke, and Tulane. Instead, he chose to attend Gulf Coast Community College. His rationale, like many professional prospects, was to improve in college while still being able to get drafted early. If he chose a four-year school, he would’ve had to wait until he was 21-years-old. His Gulf Coast team was filled with professional prospects. They would regularly beat powerhouse schools like the University of Florida or Southern Alabama.
During a spring tournament in Georgia, Peterson pitched a complete game in which he struck out 15, walked 7, and allowed six hits.
“I easily threw over 200 pitches that day. Many scouts came up to me wanting to sign me. The next day our game goes into extra innings and ny coach asks me to pitch in relief. I come in during the 10th inning – I didn’t feel right during warm-ups – but I got the first guy. On the first pitch to the second batter, I feel something pop in my shoulder. After that, I was never the same. I never pitched a game without arm pain.”
This story is similar to one that many amateur pitchers face. Overuse is one of the leading causes of pitching injuries. Peterson, unfortunately, was the classic victim of overuse. It is same overuse that he has helped pitchers avoid during his 30 years in professional baseball.